Examining third-and-1 pass plays

GREEN BAY, Wis. -- No two plays drew more attention during our in-game chat from the Green Bay Packers’ 22-9 victory over the Detroit Lions on Sunday than the two third-and-1 passes that quarterback Aaron Rodgers attempted.

The questions about coach Mike McCarthy’s play calling came pouring in.

At the time, I wrote: “More goes into play calling than we can possibly know, but it’s worth asking what the thinking was on those third downs. Not that we’ll get any answers.”

Well, I was wrong; we got some answers.

And they might surprise you, especially those of you who pined for the Packers to use their power running back, Eddie Lacy, in those situations.

“Play caller; just beat up the play caller,” McCarthy said on Monday.

But in reality, that wasn’t exactly the case.

Let’s examine the two plays:

Third-and-1 from the Lions’ 48-yard line, 3:59 remaining in the second quarter

Out of a shotgun formation, the Packers were in a single-back set with Lacy to the right of Rodgers. The play call from McCarthy gave Rodgers the option to give the ball to Lacy on a running play or to pass.

“The first third-and-1 was a run/pass option play with Aaron, and I never question what he does,” right guard T.J. Lang said. “He’s always trying to get you in the best play. Obviously you’d like to run the ball there, especially with Eddie back there.”

But Rodgers got what McCarthy called “an odd look” from the Lions, so he went with the pass option. Receiver Randall Cobb motioned to the left, giving the Packers a bunch formation with three receivers to the left and one to the right. Rodgers tried to throw a bubble screen to Cobb, but linebacker DeAndre Levy read the play, was unblocked and broke it up. The Packers were forced to punt.

“Third-and-1 calls, we do a number of things at the line of scrimmage,” McCarthy said. “That one in particular, we got an odd look. It was a different look, so that happens sometimes. That’s why the decision-making at the line of scrimmage is difficult, and it’s definitely the strength of Aaron Rodgers. Sometimes, you get an odd look, and the ball in space with Randall Cobb is always a good chance.”

Both McCarthy and offensive coordinator Tom Clements said they agreed with Rodgers’ decision.

When asked whether the run call would have worked in that situation, Clements said: “Not the way we had it designed. There were things we could do now to try to get it blocked up that would give us the ability to run it.”

Third-and-1 from the Lions’ 13-yard line, 5:13 remaining in the third quarter

The Packers have had success taking shots down the field in short-yardage situations before, and that’s what McCarthy must have been thinking on this call -- a play-action to the left, roll-out to the right for receiver Jordy Nelson in the end zone.

But Lacy wasn’t even on the field for this play.

Cobb, who three plays earlier took a handoff and ran 67 yards, was in the backfield. Perhaps the Lions figured the Packers wouldn’t give the ball to the much smaller Cobb on third-and-1. So defensive end Willie Young went right after Rodgers and forced him to roll out wider and deeper than he probably wanted to. Nelson was not open, and Rodgers' pass sailed out of bounds.

The Packers settled for a field goal that gave them a 9-3 lead.

“Taking a shot on third-and-1, to me that’s a situation call,” McCarthy said. “Some people don’t view it that way. Some people, I don’t know what they think. I’ve been in conversations with different (coaching) staffs. I think the shot play on third-and-1, a couple things have to lead up to that. It’s an instinctive call, in my opinion. So when you do it, where you do it plays a lot into that.”

Both Nelson and McCarthy wanted a penalty on Lions cornerback Rashean Mathis, who had tight coverage on Nelson.